A life-size golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was toppled by a passerby hours after it was erected overnight Monday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
By 9 a.m. Tuesday, inspectors had stuck a notice on the sculpture, which stood atop an almost two meter-high pedestal in the square named for slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The notice warned that the city would remove the statue and charge the artist unless it was removed within four hours.
The trickle of passersby in the morning gradually swelled to lively crowds as news of the artwork spread like wildfire on broadcast and social media. Raucous debates erupted, some good-natured, others angry, as onlookers tried to interpret what message the artist sought to convey.
And as an impromptu parliament sprouted up around the statue itself, animated discussions peppered Facebook and Twitter.
After lunchtime, in the midst of crowds and an argument over democracy in Israel, an unidentified man pushed the statue over, sending it toppling onto the ground. The falling figure narrowly missed former Meretz lawmaker Yael Dayan, who sat in a wheelchair nearby.
By 2 p.m., the sculptor, Itay Zalait, had packed the artwork into a trailer and driven it away, leaving a trail of photographers and TV cameras in his wake.
Zalait, who had given advance notice to Israeli media that he was “going to perform an underground political-artistic act which will have major media reverberations,” said in a morning interview with Channel 2 News that this was just the first in a series of artistic acts he was planning.
“The aim is to test the boundaries of free speech in Israel in 2016,” he said. “What happens when I display a sculpture like this? Will it bring sanctions, such as arrest, for example? Or will it just be removed?
The work was intended to get people to think, he said. “I also want to look at the public’s interaction with it, at where people take it.”
“I usually deal with subjects of freedom and free choice in my art, but all the things going on around didn’t allow me to continue.”
Stressing that the initiative was his alone, he added: “It’s the first time I’ve done something political….Only time will tell whether it’s provocation or foresight.”
The wood and polymer statue took three months to make.
Many saw in the work a reference to the biblical golden calf, worshiped by the Children of Israel while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Jewish law. One passing man said, “People think he [Netanyahu] is made of gold.” Another was reminded of statues of dictators such as Romania’s Ceausescu and Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, who died last month. “We‘re getting quite close to that,” he said.
On Facebook, one man expressed the opinions of many by posting,”Ha ha… All the leftists. Let them explode! He [Netanyahu] will be with us for a long time as prime minister!” Another followed up, “Once again, the left underestimates the intelligence of Likud [the party Netanyahu heads]!”
האמן איתי זלאיט מעמיס את פסל הזהב של נתניהו על המרכבה. לציבור קשה להיפרד מהפסל וכולם מתאספים סביב pic.twitter.com/njs5LmOSxA
— צחי דבוש (@TsahiDabush) December 6, 2016
A resident of Elad, a religious city in central Israel, who was in the square, said the sculpture was “cool” and reflected Netanyahu’s stature.
Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) also blasted the statue in a Facebook post.
“How cut off from reality can an artist be? Israel is democratic, [with] individual rights, civil rights, moral sensitivity, an activist judiciary, free media, in short one of the free countries,” she wrote. “But [this is] disconnected art, whose one golden calf is hatred of Netanyahu.”
But Yael Dayan, an activist in Peace Now and a former chair of the Tel Aviv city council, told the Haaretz newspaper that the sculpture represented a “fingers up in everyone’s face.” It conveyed the message “Just as I’m king of Amona, I’m king of Tel Aviv.”
Amona is an illegal West Bank outpost built on private Palestinian land that is due to be evacuated on December 25 in line with a court order.
Israeli media headlines have been dominated in recent weeks by Netanyahu’s attempts to delay the evacuation and to find a solution acceptable to the settlement community.
Rabin Square is one of the starkest symbols of the deep chasm between right and left in Israel.
It was here that Rabin was shot to death by a Jewish extremist as he left a peace rally on November 4, 1995. Rabin was a co-architect of the Oslo Peace Accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s. The deal was bitterly opposed by Israel’s right wing.